Nonverbal communications can provide more than 75 percent of message content related to trust.

Seventy-five percent. Let that sink in.

When communicating in high-risk situations, it is easy to concentrate only on your script as you write and refine your key messages. But getting the language just right is only part of the battle.

Keep in mind that nonverbal information can enhance or diminish the chances that your information will be heard, understood, and trusted.

Three Truths about Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication refers to communication by means other than words. When confronting a threat, risk, or high-stress issue, people are often highly attentive to nonverbal cues.

In high-concern situations, nonverbal cues or signals, such as how you look and how you sound, can be even more important than what you say.

Cues and signals such as facial expressions, body language, and vocal variety will influence the effectiveness of information a risk communicator or spokesperson shares.

Depending on the individual, situation, and context, the following are three truths about nonverbal communication in high-concern situations:

  1. Nonverbal communication is quickly noticed.
  2. Nonverbal communication can override verbal communication when inconsistencies are present. People often perceive body language and tonality as more accurate indicators of meaning and emotions than the words themselves in high-concern and high-stress situations.
  3. Depending on the cue or signal, people often interpret nonverbal communication negatively (someone can interpret sitting back in a chair as indifference; a person can interpret crossing one’s arms as closed and defiant).

Pathway Prompt: When have nonverbal clues affected your communications, either positively or negatively?

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.

This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.

The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.

More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing

Dr. Vincent Covello

Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books.


Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. New York: Transaction Publications.

See, e.g.: Archer D., & Akert R. M. (1977) Words and everything else: Verbal and nonverbal cues in social interpretation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 443–449.

Mehrabian, A., & Wiener M. (1967) Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109–114.

Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., O’Sullivan, M., & Scherer, K. (1980). Relative importance of face, body, and speech in judgements of personality and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 270–277.

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967) Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 248–452.

Jones, E. J., LeBaron, C. D. (2002) Research on the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication: Emerging integrations. Journal of Communication. Special Issue, 52, 499–521.

Krauss, R. M., Apple, W., Morency, N. Wenzel, C., & Winton, W. (1981) Verbal, vocal and visible factors in judgements of another’s affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 312–320.

Trimboli, A., Walker, Michael B. (1987) Nonverbal dominance in the communication of affect: A myth? Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 11, 180–190.

Wallbott, H. G., & Scherer, K. R. (1986) Cues and channels in emotion recognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 690–699.